Childbirth is Extremely Deadly For Black Women

Childbirth remains a potentially deadly endeavor for any American woman. Women are more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications in the United States than in any other developed country. For new mothers the prognoses are far worse: Black women are three or four times more likely to succumb to pregnancy-related complications than white women. The disparity is so pervasive that Harvard Public Health featured an article titled “America is Failing Its Black Mothers.”

Despite these dire statistics, the issue of maternal death is impacting women of all races across the country. The maternal mortality rate isn’t getting any better; maternal deaths among American women doubled between 1990 and 2013. What’s most dizzying about these figures is that the majority of the deaths and near deaths associated with pregnancy are from preventable causes. Cardiovascular and coronary problems caused over 68 percent of fatalities and 70 percent of deaths caused by hemorrhage are preventable. These ailments, along with infection, account for nearly half of all pregnancy-related deaths.

A 2018 report found that an average of four factors contributes to each maternal death. Insufficient knowledge regarding warning signs and when to seek care are among the most common contributing factors. After a baby is born, hospital staff tends to pay more attention to the needs of the newest family member than the needs of the mother. Focus shifts to the newborn in the minutes following birth, and the mother is monitored less, and her concerns are taken less seriously. When these new mothers return home, they are unlikely to possess potentially life-saving knowledge regarding information about concerning symptoms or causes for concern.

A combination of factors has caused the Black maternal mortality rate to increase to four times the rate of white women. Maternal and infant outcomes are negatively affected by the fact that Black women are more likely to be uninsured and less likely to have access to prenatal care. Black women also suffer from a heightened risk of complications throughout their pregnancy.

The chronic stress Black women are likely to experience as a result of long-term exposure to discrimination and socioeconomic disadvantages makes pregnancy riskier for young Black women.

Other causes of high maternal death are rooted in the quality of care. Black-serving hospitals typically provide lower quality maternity care and perform worse on 12 out of 15 birth outcomes, such as elective deliveries and maternal mortality. Seventy-five percent of pregnant Black women will give birth at a Black-serving hospital.

Stories of Black women who die as a result of pregnancy-related complications share one common theme. When Black women expressed their concerns to health care providers, doctors did not believe them or minimized their concerns. Clinicians are known to spend less time with Black patients and underestimate their level of pain. Doctors’ tendency to respond to the complaints of Black patients with a lesser degree of concern than those of white patients has gained national attention in recent years. The viral birth story of Serena Williams demonstrated that some racial disparities are capable of crossing economic lines. Serena Williams shared in 2018 that she “almost died,” giving birth to her daughter. Williams alerted clinicians as soon as she suspected she was suffering from another blood clot. Upon expressing her concern, nurses suggested pain medications were making her confused. It was only after Williams insisted something was wrong that a lung CT found several blood clots, confirming her suspicions. Even as a woman with access to wealth and presumably quality health care, Williams’ experience is not an anomaly.

Black women continue to experience a heightened risk of pregnancy-related deaths across all income and education levels.

Despite the medical developments of the modern world, a girl or woman dies as a result of pregnancy complications every other minute, globally. Fortunately, policymakers, clinicians, and communities can take steps to better Black maternal health.

First, increasing access to health insurance can provide Black women with both preventative and prenatal care. Next, Black women need access to culturally competent care centers where they will not be discriminated. Finally, all women — but especially women of color — deserve protections that prevent discrimination and provide access to paid medical leave. The National Black Nurses Association (NBNA) has created a call to action that addresses health inequity. Nursing and medical schools across the country must begin to incorporate bias recognition into clinical skills testing. In addition, the amount of federal and state funding allocated directly toward maternal and child health must be increased to provide higher quality care to new mothers and their babies. The way we treat pregnant women is directly related not only to women’s health and rights but also to the foundation we set for the health of future generations.

About the Author

Niara Savage is a Fisk University student and a political correspondent for The Nashville Voice online newspaper. Her debut novel, The Killing of Gregory Noble, was published in 2018 and explores American police brutality. She is passionate about social justice issues relating to education and healthcare, and plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.